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Fuel assistance funds in jeopardy if shutdown drags on; Shipyard furloughs 1,500

Senior Political Reporter

October 02. 2013 5:21PM

LONDONDERRY -- Officials at the state Office of Energy and Planning said Wednesday if the federal government shutdown drags on for another two months, an estimated $31 million in fuel assistance funds for low-income Granite Staters will be jeopardized.

Office director Meredith Hatfield delivered the sobering news to Gov. Maggie Hassan and the five-member Executive Council during their meeting at the Londonderry Town Offices.

The council approved five contracts with community action programs to distribute the $31 million to Granite Staters who apply and whose incomes are up to 200 percent of poverty level, which, Hatfield said, is $47,000 for a family of four.

Hatfield said the funding will not be delivered if the shutdown continues until Dec. 1, adding, "Our hope of course is that it doesn't go on very long."

Celeste Lovett, who heads the fuel assistance program for the energy office, said the contract amounts are estimates. She said the federal money arrives in several installments and the final amount could be more or less.

Lovett stressed that those who fit the income guideline "should keep applying" even during the shutdown "because we don't know yet what our final funding will be."

Hatfield said that in the meantime, about $2 million advanced to the community action programs to administer the assistance program "are also affected by the shutdown. So we hope it is as short a period as possible because it could impact the enrollment process, not just the benefits process."

She said the office has about $2 million on hand for the program from prior years, and, "If the shutdown went on for a period of time, we will try to be creative."

Last year, Hatfield said, $26 million was distributed to about 36,000 applicants, with an average benefit of $731.

The governor, following the meeting, expressed concern.

"If the shutdown were to continue over the long term, there are a number of programs that impact individuals in New Hampshire that really could be harmed," Hassan said.

"We're watching it very closely and making contingency plans. The critical functions of state government will continue and we have a certain amount of federal funds that were allocated before this fiscal year that we can continue to work with," the governor said in an interview.

Also Wednesday, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard moved into its second day of furloughing 1,520 of the 4,600 civilian employees at the Kittery, Maine facility.

Shipyard officials could not say how many of the furloughed workers are New Hampshire residents.

A statement from the shipyard public affairs office said "those being furloughed provide necessary support to the shipyard's mission of overhauling, repairing and modernizing the U.S. Navy's nuclear powered submarine fleet."

Their roles include "a wide array of support functions," including, "providing supplies, maintaining facilities and engineering support.

The shutdown places "significant additional hardships on our workforce, which has already been strained by recent administration furloughs," the shipyard memo said.

About, 3,085 civilian employees in "essential" positions related to the protection of "safety of life and property," under guidelines set by the Department of Defense, have been exempted from furloughs, the shipyard said.

Hassan said she was "very concerned about the furloughs. Not only do they have a serious impact on the men and women in the guard and at the shipyard, but they also have a real impact on their economy. That's real money they are not earning at the moment and not being spent into our economy."

She said she hopes Congress will "pass a clean continuing resolution so that we can keep improving economically."

U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel seeking more exemptions for the shipyard and the Army and Air National Guard, which furloughed 332 civilian technicians on Tuesday.

Shaheen, a Democrat, and Ayotte, a Republican, issued the request in their roles as Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee, which has oversight responsibility for Department of Defense depots and shipyards, as well as "the operations and maintenance budget account," their letter said.

The senators wrote that the defense department civilians "are skilled and valuable members of our national security community," citing workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the Pease 157th Air Refueling Wing.

"We certainly should not allow gridlock in Washington to keep these highly skilled professionals, including those at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Pease, from supporting missions that are so vital to our national security," the senators wrote.

They urged Hagel "to use all authority available to you under the law to expand the definition of 'excepted' workers to ensure Department of Defense civilians at our shipyards and depots, as well as military technicians in the National Guard, can continue to work and receive their pay."

Shaheen and Ayotte's Senate web sites each contain messages saying their offices are performing only "essential legislative operations" during the shutdown. Shaheen's site said her New Hampshire offices are closed and the Washington office is operating "with limited capacity."

Ayotte's message did not specify the status of her New Hampshire offices, but her chief of staff, John Easton, said her New Hampshire offices are also closed and the Washington office is "operating with very limited capacity."

Rep. Ann Kuster's Nashua and Bethlehem offices are closed, while her Concord and Washington offices are open with reduced staffing levels.

Reps. Carol Shea-Porter's site has a "frequently asked question" section on the shutdown, but does not say whether her offices are open or closed.

Shaheen said she is donating her salary to the New Hampshire Food Bank during the shutdown.

"I didn't think it was appropriate to take a salary while so many people have been furloughed because of the government shutdown," she said. "We need to immediately come together and get the government running again because the consequences of this shutdown are very real for families and small businesses across New Hampshire and the country."

Ayotte chief of staff Easton said, "Any days that federal workers do not get paid, Senator Ayotte will donate her salary to a New Hampshire charity."

A Kuster spokesman said, "For every day the government is shut down, Rep. Kuster will contribute a portion of her salary to Child and Family Services of New Hampshire and organizations serving veterans and military families."

Shea-Porter said in a statement that she and her husband regularly make charitable donations and will continue to do so during the shutdown.

Beyond that, "We have always kept our charitable giving private and will continue to do so," said Shea-Porter.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire veterans of World War II voiced frustration with the closing of the World War II Memorial in Washington.

Robert Feeman, 89, of Manchester, who served with the U.S. infantry in the 32nd Red Arrow Division in the Philippines and the occupation of Japan, was among 63 New England veterans in Washington last Saturday at the World War II Memorial, courtesy of the non-profit Honor Flight New England.

"It was terrific, a great trip," he said. "So many people greeted us."

The veterans toured the memorial, were greeted by statesman and former four-star U.S. Army General Colin Powell and treated to a dinner attended by about 600 people.

Honor Flight New England was founded by retired Manchester police officer Joseph Byron, to bring veterans to see the memorial at no cost to them.

Feeman and the other veterans' reception was in start contrast to what happened to 91 Mississippi World War II veterans who arrived Tuesday at the memorial to find barriers blocking their entry because of the partial US government shutdown.

The veterans, however, knocked over the barriers and went on in to see their memorial, some reportedly saying Japan and Germany couldn't keep them out and neither could the U.S. government.

"They pushed over the barriers and pushed their wheelchairs on through," laughed Peter Burdett, chairman of the State Veterans Advisory Committee.

Feeman, who enlisted at 19 and served for three years, said he doesn't understand why the memorial was closed off to veterans.

"Why would they do that?" he asked, especially when some veterans have traveled so far to see it and are about 90 years old. "They're going to turn around and go home?"

Burdett believes it is impractical for the government to think they can close down open air monuments.

"It's kind of silly to keep people away from the Vietnam Memorial. Think about it," said Burdett,a retired Navy commander and chairman of the state Veterans Advisory Committee. He joined the military towards the end of the Vietnam War and though a helicopter pilot, he did not fight in that war.

Byron said the next Honor Flight is set for Oct. 20 and 25 New England World War II veterans are signed up. It is going to take place, whether the government is still shut down or not, he said, explaining it is too late for any refunds.

"We're going," he said.

(Staff reporter Pat Grossmith contributed to this report)

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